Egypt Documentation Project

The Egypt Documentation Project started in March 2015 as a two-year programme, supported by Arcadia – A charitable fund by Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, training early-career archaeologists from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities in digital documentation of artefacts. In March 2017, a second phase of the Egypt Documentation Project was launched, focussing on the digitisation and documentation of glass negatives in the Ministry of Antiquities archives.

At the centre of the project is an aim to ensure the preservation for future generations of the knowledge embedded within artefacts, whether they are archaeological objects or photographs. The focus has therefore been on providing support to Ministry of Antiquities staff to undertake complete documentation of the materials in their care. This is done through on-the-job training in photography and cataloguing, led by British Museum photographers and documentation specialists, and by providing support to the trainees in their ongoing documentation activities.

Two archives are participating in the new phase: The Archives of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (AEMC) and the Scientific Archives of the Documentation Center (SADC), which is located in the Ministry of Antiquities headquarters in Zamalek, Cairo.

Each archive holds around 25,000 glass negatives dating from the 1870s to the 1950s, covering such diverse subjects as prehistoric cemeteries, life on excavations, museum displays, views of ancient and Islamic monuments, artefacts and daily life scenes from the turn of the last century. The collections contain glass plates in many formats, ranging in size from 6.5x6cm to 30x40cm. Most of the photographs have never been published and will be made available for the first time.

Two teams of archive staff have been trained on digitisation, using high-end DSLR cameras to capture digital copies of the glass negatives, and cataloguing using international metadata standards.

Negatives being inventoried and rehoused in acid-free materials.

A negative is digitised using a DSLR camera and a light table. Photograph: Ibrahim Abdel Fattah (Ministry of Antiquities)

More than 20,000 negatives have been digitised to date and are now being catalogued in a bespoke database developed by ResearchSpace. Information from this database will be made available in an online catalogue of the digitised negatives.

Some of the glass negatives were displayed in an exhibition in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, entitled Capturing Egypt on Glass: Photographic Treasures from the Ministry of Antiquities Archives. The aim of the exhibition was to disseminate the results of the project and to promote the wealth of information about the history of Egyptology, archaeology and photography in Egypt that is being revealed through the careful and systematic digitisation of the glass negatives.

The exhibition was opened by the Minister of Antiquities, Dr. Khaled El-Enany, and the British Museum Director, Hartwig Fischer, on 1 April 2018.

Project Curator Sara Kayser giving Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, and Neal Spencer, Keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, a tour of the exhibition in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Courtesy of Mohamed Saad.

Hartwig Fischer during visits to the two archives (Left: SADC, Right: AEMC)

Photographic equipment used to capture glass negatives, Egyptian Museum Cairo. Photograph: Ibrahim Abdel Fattah (Ministry of Antiquities)

Glass negatives on display in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Photograph: Ibrahim Abdel Fattah (Ministry of Antiquities)